Fractured narrative, skewed perception, compressed timelines—director/writer Christopher Nolan won’t lead his audience in a straight line where a Möbius strip will suffice. Multi-award nominated breakthrough hit and neuro-noir Memento was the English Literature graduate’s first real attempt to hew closely to what he terms the “possessory experience” of a book’s story, whereby the reader can re-read, flipping back until satisfied with his or her understanding of the writer’s intentions (the director is fond of his “Nolan-isms”—his latest, Dunkirk, is being sold as in the moment, “experiential.”) And Memento‘s “backward” tale is a head-scratching mystery that rewards with each rewatch, an innovative pushing of the restrictions on narrative that have in his mind largely failed to advance in line with every other aspect of filmmaking. Memento, based on his brother Jonathan (Jonah) Nolan’s short story, Memento Mori, has a structure based around Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce), a man unable to make new memories for himself after a blow to the head, wherein he wakes in his bathroom to find his wife dead. He trawls the underside of dusty Southern California to gather evidence against the man he believes killed his wife, the elusive John G, keeping track of events by leaving post-its everywhere to himself and tattooing clues all across his body. Leonard is both helped and hindered by bar-tending femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) and undercover cop Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), both with their own agenda, a drug deal. The flip side to Leonard’s quest, gradually revealed as the film progresses (or regresses), is that of a man who deliberately forgets the truth to have a reason to carry on living—trapped in the moment. No wonder Nolan’s production company (since Memento with his wife Emma Thomas now as producer) is named Syncopy, referring to the condition that creates a state of temporary unconsciousness—Nolan wants you to be immersed in his films in that magical theater of dreams, the cinema.
After the triple timeline of his ultra-low-budget, long-in-the-making debut Following, Nolan challenged himself and his audience further with the “backward” narrative of amnesiac Leonard’s hunt. Speaking with Total Film in 2008, he said, “There isn’t any first-person grammar in films, whereas in novels, it’s a fairly standard thing and an incredible tool to be able to grab the reader and shove him inside somebody’s head. In Memento, there are no establishing shots. Each scene begins inside. My thing was to get that subjective experience with this character: he doesn’t know how he got into this room, doesn’t know what’s outside these four walls. Every time he comes into a room you want the camera to be just over his shoulder, just discovering the room as he is, you use all sorts of close-ups to try and achieve an amount of texture through the little details, the things around him, because that’s the scope of his world.”
Teddy dismissively calls Leonard “the hero of his own romantic quest,” with his wife preserved in aspic, as it were, easier to care about now she’s out of the picture. Further confusion is sown as to whether Leonard is actually Sammy Jankis, a fellow anterograde amnesiac, he tells Teddy about—Leonard was once an insurance investigator who looked into Sammy’s condition to see if it was genuine for a payout. Sammy’s diabetic wife, unsure as to whether or not his condition is genuine, repeatedly requests insulin, which Sammy continues to administer, without a blink: his wife falls into a fatal coma. Memento utilizes many of the familiar tropes of the hard-boiled detective noir: the lone protagonist, paranoia, seedy settings, voice-over, characters lying to themselves as much as to our hero. By using the film’s unique structure, Nolan hoped to use noir’s trappings to subvert and make them fresh again. Leonard is a man not only out of step with time, but also with technology: he carries around a bulky and incomplete file on his wife’s killing, writing endless notes to himself, unable to remember how to use any piece of technology fresh to him. Teddy tells him, “You don’t know who you are, who you’ve become since the incident. You’re wandering around, playing detective… and you don’t even know how long ago it was.” Memento is one long form “investigative flashback,” beginning with the resolution to the murder, then retracing its path, stripping the narrative of any certainties—debate still rages as to whether Leonard is Sammy, or did he kill his own wife in their apartment?
Without the ability to conjure any new memories, Leonard’s sense of self is malleable, depending on where we are in the film. He’s alternately the cocky, confident insurance investigator, methodical and dispassionate; in the black-and-white sequences, he reflects on whether he is being manipulated; and in the color, “present” scenes, he is full of guile, able to flip on a dime to stay ahead of the pack. As to whether Nolan’s interpretation of Leonard’s memory loss is accurate, a cognitive psychologist had some interesting things to say on an Internet discussion board when the film came out: “Leonard could remember whatever he’s thinking about indefinitely, as long as he is intent upon it. However, the slamming of a car door, for instance, could distract him for a moment, and then a long train of thought would derail. Anterograde amnesia is not so much an inability to record new memories but to be consciously aware of them.” At one point Leonard, after a fight with Natalie, rubs his fist, aware that he has hit something, but not able to recall what. Guy Pearce describes his character as operating “almost like a synapse really, just a nerve ending that’s responding to everything around him and trying to maintain some sort of control.” Part of that control is holding on to that last memory he believes he has of his wife’s death—despite his best efforts, he “Can’t remember to forget you.” Hence also his appearance as an illustrated man—a walking canvas of clues to get to the bottom of the mystery. Yet somewhere in his subconscious, he doesn’t want to move on—writing down Teddy’s car registration, falsifying evidence.
Pearce was intrigued with the notion of self-deception. “I’m fascinated with the conflict that goes on within someone’s mind, between what they know about themselves, and what they think they know about themselves, and then what they present to other people and what they present to themselves. Suddenly here was a character where all those elements were really heightened. He’s doing this grotesque thing of telling himself things by tattooing himself, profusely denying certain elements of his emotional state.”
Production designer Patti Podesta had one week to design the tattoos. They were printed on butcher’s paper as a transfer and sprayed onto the skin, touched up and powdered down. It took several hours to apply them, but they would last for five days if Pearce didn’t scrub too hard in the shower. They aren’t just clues relating to the mystery of the dead wife (John G raped and killed your wife); Leonard’s tattoos also number such mundane commands as the upside-down one on his belly to “eat.” Also, to hone his mind—Condition yourself. Furthermore, he has himself wrapped in knots with advice such as Memory is treachery.
Another essential element to the film was the Polaroid camera and snapshots Leonard takes. Nolan was worried that the company wouldn’t give him permission to use it. The camera they got to use took better pictures than Leonard takes, “but we wanted them to be a bit crappy. They had their own creepy look to them—a lack of detail with a weird color situation.” Pearce ended up folding it down and whipping it out from under his jacket like his amnesiac’s version of a gun, or badge.
Nolan has never been overly fond of storyboarding. “Most storyboards are drawn according to conventions, and they have a comic-book feel to them, which doesn’t necessarily relate that strongly to where you’re going to put the camera, and what lens you’re going to use.” For the difficult to convey murder in reverse opening sequence, Mark Bristol did indeed storyboard. “Generally,” Nolan recalls, “I’m very good at visualizing things in my head pictorially, shot to shot, but on that scene, I was having a very hard time conveying what I wanted and what would be practical, because there were effects involved. The whole reverse nature of it meant that it was actually very helpful to have the shots as pictures, so I could show people the order in which they were going to take place.”
Selling the film’s concept, Nolan has said himself that the simplest explanation of Memento for audiences is that it is a noire-esque tale, told by its protagonist in reverse. Although it’s really more elaborate than that. “If you draw out the timeline, it is indeed a hairpin. If you order the material chronologically, the black and white material moves forwards, and in the last scene switches around and goes back to the color scene. So there is this hairpin turn.”
As James Mottram states in his excellent book, The Making of Memento:
Breaking this idea down, this is how the film concludes. The final backwards-moving colour segment of the film begins with Leonard’s (Guy Pierce) screech to a halt outside the tattoo parlour (where he will significantly request Teddy’s (Joe Pantoliano) licence plate number to be inscribed on his leg, setting him on a journey that will ultimately lead to Teddy’s death—as seen at the film’s outset). When the scene closes, Nolan takes us back to the black-and-white sequence, where Leonard leaves the motel, meets Teddy, and heads to the derelict hallway, chronologically just before the tattoo parlor scene. As Leonard takes a Polaroid of the dead Jimmy Grantz, the film fades into color, as the Polaroid develops, at one of the film’s most elegant but understated moments. Leonard, unsettled by Teddy’s revelations in the derelict hallway, decides to choose him as the next John G., copying his license plate down, knowing he will soon forget his murderous intent. The next step? The tattoo parlor, of course, and the skid to a halt.
“You can never find out where you are in the timeline, because there is no timeline,” says Jonathan Nolan. “If it was a straight-backwards film, you could just take that two-dimensional timeline and flip it over, but you can’t do that with this film. Later on down the line, you realize that this film doesn’t run back; it’s a Möbius strip.”
Effectively the film is one continuous twist from start to finish. One of the keys is understanding the parallel subjective view of the reverse color sequences, told from Leonard’s point of view in the here and now; and the objective view of the forward moving black and white, where he is an unreliable narrator.
Incidentally, the title of this piece derives from the song used over the end credits, David Bowie’s apropos Something In The Air. “When you have such an abrupt ending that leaves you in such a point of tension, I think you need a very active soundtrack over the credits, in order to release the tension for the audience. Even though the narrative ending leaves you very tense, you want to be able to signal to the audience that the experience is over. It frees you up immediately to consider the film and start processing it in your mind.” Unable to secure his original choice of song, Radiohead’s Paranoid Android, Nolan secured Bowie’s approval after discovering he and Guy Pierce shared the same agent, sending him a copy of the script.
It was fellow director Steven Soderbergh, blown away by Memento’s concept and execution, who championed the film and touted it around distributors he knew. In the end, Newmarket, who had never released a film before, took a chance on it. Soderbergh used his clout with Warner Brothers to secure the American remake of Insomnia for Nolan, knowing he was interested. He told him, “You’ve withstood the most difficult situation a young filmmaker can find themselves in: making a studio movie with movie stars on a tight schedule, having never operated in that world before. From now on, the only thing that’ll limit you is your ideas of what you can do.”
Now, where was I?
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
“Unlike Following, I wrote Memento on a computer, which certainly made it easier to keep things in check as to how it would read in the chronological sense. Basically I felt that the strongest approach I could take, once I’d figured out the structural conceit, was to sit down and imagine what I wanted to see on the screen, as it would appear on the screen. One of the reasons I was able to do that was that even though the film is seemingly very complex, the story is actually very simple, and that’s part of the point of the movie: we’re taking a relatively simple story and filtering it through somebody’s very unusual way of perceiving the world. That perceptual distortion of not being able to make new memories was always very interesting to me, far more so than a conventional amnesia story whereby somebody is making new memories, but they don’t know who they are. They could be anybody and they don’t know what’s happened in the past. This is kind of a complete new version of that, where you have someone who knows everything about himself, all the objective information that’s supposed to tell us who we are, but he can’t connect that with his present self. That was a fascinating conundrum, something I hadn’t really seen before. So the whole dynamic of the script is aimed at taking a really very simple story and putting the audience through the perceptual distortion that Leonard suffers, thereby making this simple story seem incredibly complex and challenging, the way it would be for someone with this condition. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t all kinds of complexities at the end of the story, but the basic plotting is actually very simple.” —Remembering Where it All Began: Christopher Nolan on Memento
Screenwriter must-read: Christopher Nolan’s screenplay for Memento [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Memento—Telling a Story In Reverse, another excellent video essay by Lessons from the Screenplay’s Michael Tucker.
An interview from 2000 with director Christopher Nolan explaining character behaviour/mind set, story structure and more about his movie Memento.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Photographed by Daniel Rothenberg © Newmarket Capital Group, Team Todd, Summit Entertainment (Kobal/REX/Shutterstock). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only. Please visit the website and support: The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers.
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